West Monroe High School students and alumni will continue to be known as the “Rebels” thanks to the Ouachita Parish School Board’s decision to snub a community petition claiming the moniker was racist.
The School Board entertained the complaints of a local group supporting a change.org petition, “Change West Monroe High School’s Racist Rebel Mascot,” during its regular meeting on Tuesday. The petition had more than 3,000 signatures.
The organizer of the online petition, Dalia El-Giar, tied the high school’s name to the Jan. 6 protest at the U.S. Capitol where four people lost their lives and more than 100 law enforcement officers were injured. Former President Donald Trump currently is facing the possibility of impeachment for allegedly inciting the protest.
“The U.S. Capitol was stormed and one of the most prominent symbols they used was the Confederate flag,” said El-Giar. “Something West Monroe shares with those people is reverence for the Confederacy, and it’s time for that to change.”
El-Giar is a 2018 graduate of West Monroe High School. She argued the school adopted the “Rebels” name during the era preceding the signing of the Civil Rights Act. She said the name signaled the community’s opposition to the social changes introduced by the civil rights movement.
Though the online petition asked the School Board to ban the high school’s mascot, the Rebel Raiders’ uniforms and demanded other changes, many of those changes had already occurred, according to West Monroe High School Principal Shelby Ainsworth. In 2015, Ainsworth sparked controversy by banning the Confederate flag at the high school.
That was the first of a series of changes he made there.
“We no longer use the mascot or any other representation of a Confederate soldier or a Johnnie Reb,” Ainsworth said. “You cannot find that representation at the high school.”
Ainsworth suggested the “Rebels” name could take on a new meaning, apart from its historical association with the Confederate States of America.
“What if we change people’s perspective about what the name stands for?” Ainsworth said.
Ainsworth said he believed the high school and School Board had considered the online petition carefully and responded sensitively. There was nothing “racist or hurtful” about the school system’s response, according to Ainsworth.
Carl Whitlock, a student at the University of Louisiana-Monroe and a supporter of the online petition, said the “Rebels” name reflected the division he experienced as a student at the high school.
“Every white person at West Monroe were my friends,” Whitlock said. “They cussed me out when I wanted to sit down during the National Anthem.”
“Not everybody is proud of graduating from West Monroe High School,” he added.
Whitlock commended ULM for allowing the installation of a “Black Lives Matter” art project on the university’s campus. The university’s promotion of the giant letters spelling “Black Lives Matter” across the street from the ULM library demonstrated an appropriate tolerance of diversity, according to Whitlock.
“West Monroe High School let us put up Black History Month posters that got torn down,” he said.
School Board member Shere May offered a motion to make no changes to the high school’s “Rebels” nickname.
“We have new band uniforms and many other changes, so let’s leave everything as it is,” May said.
School Board member Scotty Waggoner seconded the motion. The vote was unanimous.
A 1989 alum of the high school, Waggoner defended the high school’s name as a symbol of community pride.
“What about the students who left who are proud? I’m proud,” Waggoner said. “I can get pretty emotional about this. The culture has changed, and it’s not just about a name.”
Wayne Campbell, who is the instructor of the high school’s Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) program, also defended the name “Rebel.”
“It’s not the actual name of ‘Rebel’ that makes it bad, but it’s the symbol attached to the name that made it bad,” Campbell said. “We need to make the word ‘Rebel’ inclusive, to rebrand the name, than think of it in a negative sense. We can be rebels with a cause. The cause of social justice.”
“Changing a name without changing the culture won’t do any good,” he added.
Whitlock and others pledged to return again in the future to challenge the high school’s name. El-Giar was the organizer of a similar online petition in mid-2020.